When you ask Jennifer Mattern for a guest post, what you’re not going to get is a cookie-cutter, rah-rah, you-can-do-it, smoke-up-your-skirt kind of post that cheers you on and encourages you through positive reinforcement.
What you will get is a direct, no-bullshit post that tells the raw truth, even if it stings.
Jenn doesn’t tell you something sucks because she has something better to offer. She tells you because you need to know it in order to make a better decision.
It’s why I love her. She can give you a reality check. She can wake you up. And she can make it so that the mistake you’re about to make won’t happen because you know better or you’re afraid she’ll find out where you live and shake the hell out of you.
The former is absolutely the way she works. The latter is why people succeed. Hey, fear is as good a motivator as anything. 😉
Okay, so she won’t show up at your door and shake you (I don’t think — or will she?). But she will certainly give you a verbal wake-up call.
Today, Jenn shows us how to weed out the BS advice.
Bullshit Freelance Writing Advice New Writers Should Ignore
by Jennifer Mattern
When you begin a new freelance writing career, it’s not always easy to know where to start. Should you specialize or write about anything and everything? How much should you charge? How can you find your first freelance writing clients?
Fortunately, there are plenty of other freelancers out there willing to give you good advice on building your fledgling freelance writing business.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of other freelancers out there happy to dole out bullshit advice while earning a pretty penny off the backs of new writers like you.
Ultimately, it falls on you to vet your sources of information so you don’t follow bad advice that can set your freelance career back for years, or even lead to its failure. A good place to start is being able to identify common bits of bad advice.
Here are five pieces of bullshit freelance writing advice you can safely ignore.
You must start at the bottom.
When someone says you need to “start at the bottom” in your freelance writing career, what they mean is you should work for free or for low-paying clients to build initial clips.
What they really mean is they had to start with unpaid and low-paying gigs to build a portfolio, so they think all other new freelance writers should be subjected to the same.
Now, are there cases where this is more likely to occur? Sure. If you want to freelance exclusively for magazines, you might start with smaller regional or trade publications for example. But it’s still not always necessary.
The right contacts, the right credentials, and the right pitch can go a long way. I know writers who went right into well-paying national publications. Does that mean you will too? No. But it also means you don’t necessarily have to start at the bottom.
The thing is, I more often see this advice given in relation to online writing like web copywriting and freelance blogging. And the bad advice usually revolves around you having to use guest posts.
There’s even less of a reason to settle for little-to-no pay when you write for the web. Mid-level to pro-level online writing gigs are plentiful if you bother learning how to find them. (Hint: The best freelance writing jobs are often unadvertised.)
Newsflash: The writers giving you this advice to settle for less didn’t know how to do better for themselves when they were starting out. Why would you want to take advice based on someone else’s marketing failures? Click To Tweet You shouldn’t.
So no. You don’t have to build clips writing things like unpaid guest posts. Those aren’t freelance writing clips anyway. While it’s okay to highlight them somewhere, your portfolio isn’t the right place for them. That’s to showcase freelance work you’ve done for clients – people who valued your work enough to pay for it.
Another issue? The most valuable guest posts aren’t ones you’ll write as a new freelancer. They’re the thought leadership pieces you’ll publish later when you’re a trusted source. If you have relevant experience in your specialty area from your pre-freelance days, that’s fine. You’re good to go. But if you don’t, and you’re starting with guest posting, you’re doing things half-assed backward. First, you need to have something to say.
The same applies to extremely low-paying clients like content mills or “contributor networks.” The clips aren’t always the reputation boost you expect. And the reality is, even if an unpaid or poorly-paid post does help you land a gig later, a paid post could have done the same thing. And, you know… you would have been paid. That’s the point of freelancing after all.
If you’re going to write for little to no pay to build clips, do it by volunteering for a respectable nonprofit organization (or one of their publications – many nonprofits have them). Make it one you would support anyway. And do it either during your off-hours or your marketing time. It shouldn’t be a substitute for billable hours. Then you’ll have a clip from a reputable source, and it’s good PR for your business in the process.
You need to pitch… and a lot.
Pitching and I have a complicated relationship.
On one hand, I come from a public relations background where pitches are an essential part of the job, from media relations to fundraising. On the other hand, I advocate for an approach I call query-free freelancing, where you focus on a combination of PR and inbound marketing (much of what’s now labeled “content marketing” – old tools, new name).
I’m a big believer in attracting the right clients to you instead of you seeking them out, sending queries, making cold calls, and applying to job ads. The leads are warm. They come to you already wanting to hire you. They’re often willing to pay more. And you’re in the position of accepting or rejecting what you want rather than waiting on approval from someone else.
So I can tell you for a fact you don’t “need” to pitch a lot to be a successful freelance writer. Yet I’ve seen some folks dole out advice telling you it’s an absolute necessity – the only way even.
They’ll also tell you pitching is a numbers game. And they’re right on that one. A relatively small percentage of prospects you pitch are going to respond and hire you.
The problem is it becomes all about the pitching and not nearly enough about what comes first. That means pitches are often handled poorly.
It doesn’t matter if you send out 300 pitches if you don’t know what you’re doing. Lousy queries and cold calls do you no good. And yet I routinely see bloggers telling new freelancers to pitch, pitch, pitch.
They often leave out things that make pitches more effective – true personalization (not just plugging in names and new article ideas for each), attractive credentials (which you might not have yet), and relationships in the community you’re pitching (which you also might not have).
Now look. I might take a query-free approach to freelance writing. But I also have the PR and marketing background to make that work for me. It may or may not be something you can replicate. And I’m not against pitching. I’m against bad pitching.
When these bloggers tell you to pitch heavily right away, they’re doing you a disservice because they’re not helping you lay the groundwork first.
So no. Depending on the type of freelance writing you want to do, sending a never-ending stream of pitches isn’t necessary.
Should you pitch if you’re new? Of course it’s worth trying. It’ll be one of the quickest ways to get in front of hand-picked prospects while you build the platform that will attract them later. But do it responsibly. Numbers matter. But knowing what you’re doing, and being able to back your pitches up, matters more.
And if you find you absolutely despise pitching and it just isn’t working for you… stop. You don’t need anyone’s permission. Just work out a new marketing strategy that puts you at the intersection of your target clients and your strengths.
You need to do “X” every day.
Bullshit. Bullshit. Bull. Shit.
There is nothing you need to do “every day” to be a successful freelance writer. And, yet again, this is advice I see given to writers like you all the time.
“You need to send pitches every day.”
“You need to blog every day.”
“You need to write every day.”
Also… wait for it…
There is not a single thing you must do every day as a freelance writer. And there is not a single thing which, when done every day, guarantees your success as a freelance writer.
You will (or should) take days off.
You are allowed to batch tasks in any way you please, giving them assigned days rather than “every day” commitments if you want to.
Your schedule does not have to look like anyone else’s.
If doing something every single day is the only way you can stay focused, keep your forward momentum, or whatever, that’s fine. Do it. But the fact you, or any other writer, has to do that does not mean you get to put that on everyone else.
It’s far more important you come up with a plan that works for you. Then stick with it.
The “every day” nonsense ultimately comes down to consistency. That’s important. But you can build consistency and good habits without forcing them to be daily ones.
You should sign up for a freelance writing course.
Actually, you probably shouldn’t.
Certainly not if you’re new to the freelance writing world.
Definitely not from any “professional” freelancer who’s only been in this field for a few years.
Funny thing though. These are often the people pushing their fellow (newer) writers to take freelance writing courses – their freelance writing courses.
They can’t earn the living they want actually freelancing, so they’re earning it by selling to you instead. This is a ridiculous trend these days from the internet marketing crowd, and far too many freelancers have jumped on board.
The problem is many of these writers offering courses, promising you a successful start to your freelance writing career, aren’t even close to being experts yet. (But they play them on the internet.)
This is why they don’t target their more experienced colleagues with their super-awesome freelance writing courses. Those colleagues can see right through them. They’re counting on newer writers like you not being able to.
I have a simple rule when it comes to accepting advice-oriented guest posts on my freelance writing blog, and I highly recommend it when vetting fellow freelancers offering courses:
They must have been in business for at least five years (and ideally full-time).
Why? Because around half of businesses fail within five years.
If someone can’t make it that long and show they’re at least in that upper 50%, as far as I’m concerned they haven’t reached teaching territory yet. They’re still learning. They’re still proving they can build a sustainable business of their own. And all they can generally teach are tactics (things they’ve often learned from someone else who might be an actual expert), not long-term strategy. And going into a new freelance business with a tactics-oriented approach simply isn’t smart. You can do better.
The other kind of course you’ll often find is the “here’s how I earned $XXXX per month and you can too!” variety. What’s the problem with that? Nothing I suppose, if you want to pay to read a case study of one freelancer talking about their own career which is highly unlikely to be an ideal model for your own. Unless you’re in the same specialty, with a similar background, with similar interests and skills as far as marketing goes (these often revolve around a single marketing tactic the “instructor” got lucky with), you can find better places to learn.
And don’t be fooled by free courses. Those in the insta-expert crowd frequently use them to rope you into their email lists where they’ll pitch you on their (equally-unqualified) premium courses or ebooks later. And free or paid, the risk of bad advice from inexperienced freelancers is much too high.
If you’re convinced you must take a freelance writing course, look for people who have been around a while.
Look for freelancers who have been earning a living through that freelance work for a significant amount of time and not those who largely parrot what they’ve learned in their own internet marketing courses. By the time the information trickles down to you in that latter case, it’s old news.
Even more important, look for qualified instructors who are in the specific area of freelance writing you want to focus on. For example, if you wanted to learn about high-paying ghostblogging or press releases or other types of PR writing, you might come to someone like me. But I would never offer a course on something like writing for consumer magazines because it simply isn’t what I do.
That said, I don’t recommend taking any “freelance writing” courses until you have gigs coming in to pay for them. If you want to invest up front, you would be far better served doing something most new freelancers I hear from neglect – learning business fundamentals.
Take more general business courses. Read free online business textbooks on the subjects of entrepreneurship, consumer psychology, marketing, copywriting, public relations, and areas relevant to your niche or industry when appropriate.
Knowing the fundamentals is far more valuable than trying to mimic another freelance writer. That’s how you learn the skills to adapt to changing markets and get ahead of the marketing curve rather than taking hand-me-downs from people who have already moved on to bigger and better things.
You have to look like an authority to Google, so do X, Y, and Z.
I mentioned guest posting earlier and the way too many freelance writers are jumping on the insta-expert bandwagon thanks to the internet marketing courses they’re taking (and trying to replicate). This bit of advice ties in.
You might hear you have to build your “authority” status so you rank higher in Google’s search results and more prospects find you there. Advice around doing this is often about building links, or “shareable content.”
You’ll often see a laundry list of must-dos such as:
- Guest post on high authority blogs. (I talked about some of the problems with this above.)
- Run your own “top list” for your industry. (An outdated and terribly transparent linkbait tactic where bloggers egobait people into sharing their posts for nominations and votes, then sharing the list if they’re on it.)
- Build “skyscraper content.” (My utter disdain for this and anyone doing it could be a post all its own. Suffice to say, if this is how you create content, you lack the originality to be a true authority.)
The tactics are problematic. But the overall advice is even more so. It’s about looking like an authority.
And this idea that you, as a new business owner, should (or are even in the position to) become a fast authority figure in your specialty is complete and utter bullshit.
It’s trend-chasing (or algorithm-chasing when it comes to Google rankings). It’s not natural. It’s not sustainable. And it can put your reputation at risk if you aren’t careful.
It’s important to remember that being seen as an authority by Google (meaning they rank you highly) doesn’t mean you are an authority. That’s a status you only earn through experience. And that’s a better place to focus.
When you become a real authority, you’ll see more consistent Google rankings in the long run. You won’t constantly chase marketing trends to keep your rankings from dropping when Google gets tired of the kind of link schemes you were involved in. If you’ve been around a decade or so, you’ve seen waves of this come and go; if you’re new to freelancing, don’t let yourself get caught up in the current one.
So should you care about being seen as an authority? Yes. That’s basic PR – image, visibility, and reputation management. Should it all revolve around Google and today’s version of “authority” for rankings? No. Focus on building experience. Experiment, test, and conduct original research when possible. Share industry insights you’re qualified to weigh in on (which isn’t much without that experience first).
Authority isn’t an overnight phenomenon. It’s about well-deserved trust that comes from doing the work and having something original to say. Don’t neglect link-building in ways that make sense for your specialty. Those search engine rankings do matter. But don’t obsess over them. Don’t expect instant results. And don’t sell your soul for temporary Google glory. It won’t last. And you may leave yourself with a mess to clean up later when another policy or algorithm change comes along.
Did you fall for any bullshit freelance writing advice when you were starting out? If so, what was it, and how did you learn it was bad advice for you?
Jenn Mattern is a freelance business writer and blogger with 18 years’ experience. Visit Jenn’s All Freelance Writing, where she’s spent 10 years offering advice, job leads, free tools, and more to help new freelance writers build successful and sustainable businesses.